Could pharmacists be made obsolete by apps and robots?
Stakeholders in the US seem to think pharmacists’ traditional role could be automated – and that robots could do a better job of “a perfect job for a robot: a repetitive and mundane task”.
The Future of You health and technology blog cites the case of the UCSF Medical Center in California, which for the last five years has relied on an automated “robot pharmacy” to fill prescriptions, and a fleet of thousands of autonomous bots to deliver them to patients.
It quotes UCSF program director Rita Jew, who says the robots work with 100% accuracy, and that humans are only involved in two aspects of the process: stocking the medications into canisters which are taken from racks by the robots, and sending the packaged, labelled medicines that come out the other end on their way.
In the case of medicines being sent to a hospitalised patient at the centre, a human “might hand them off to a Tug robot that rolls around the hospital from floor to floor, dropping off prescriptions at each nurse’s station”.
According to Jew, only two technicians – at most – are now required to interface with the robots, while other techs had been reassigned to other jobs such as collecting medication history.
In the past, seven pharmacy technicians pulled the drugs, supervised by three to four pharmacists.
In the UK, Keith Ridge, England’s Chief Pharmaceutical Officer, is on record saying that error rates are lower in the hub-and-spoke model and that pharmacists have a professional obligation to use automated dispensing processes.
“Technology and automation are going to do a whole lot of things that the traditional pharmacist has done,” Dr Marilyn Stebbins, a pharmacy professor and vice-chair of clinical innovation at UCSF, told Future of You.
“If the pharmacists don’t prove their value outside of their existing roles, automation will win because ultimately it will be cheaper.”
Pharmacists need to take on jobs that robots simply can’t replicate, the piece warns. For example, California has recently permitted pharmacists who have certain training and expertise to take on a more active role in primary care, including reviewing medication histories and prescribing medicines like birth control and nicotine replacements.
Dr Lisa Kroon, a clinical pharmacy professor at UCSF, says this is a pivot in the role of pharmacists, who need to take up the opportunities.
“But so far this new role doesn’t come with any extra pay for extra services,” notes writer Mallory Pickett.
“The new law doesn’t include regulations to allow pharmacists to be paid for their services. Pharmacists are still reimbursed just for the products they provide.
“So Stebbins says pharmacists’ potential to fill gaps in the healthcare system may remain untapped until there’s some way to pay them for it.”
A 2013 UK study found that pharmacists were the 54th least likely to lose their jobs to robots – out of 702 occupations.
The authors said their predictions were “intuitive in that most management, business, and finance occupations, which are intensive in generalist tasks requiring social intelligence, are largely confined to the low risk category. The same is true of most occupations in education, healthcare, as well as arts and media jobs.”
Recreational therapists were the least likely to be automated, with telemarketers the most likely to lose their jobs to robots.